16 June 2015

California, the Delta, and the Endangered Species Act

Okay. This started out as a Facebook post, and then it grew a little too polarized and rather too long for that social space. As I'd rather not venture too far into the realm of politics or political ecology (apparently this can become somewhat guilt-inducing?) on FB, I shall transfer the righteous anger to MudSoup.

The topic is the drought in California - the prompt was observing Representative Devin Nunes being a complete numpty and claiming that the drought is manmade. He blames the protection of the Delta Smelt under the Endangered Species Act, and seems to think that letting the Smelt slide away into extinction is no big deal: after all, it is just a "stupid little fish".

So, okay... let's hit pause and analyze the key points here, before we get carried away listening to these crazy people who think the protection of endangered species is what's killing agriculture in California.

We are out of water in California because the current drought has meant less rainfall, less snowfall, and - crucially - less snowmelt during the last four years. There is therefore dramatically less water (from snowmelt) than ever before flowing into California's agricultural Central Valley, and in parallel there is dramatically less water flowing through the Sacramento River and into the Delta.

The Delta, an estuarine ecosystem, is lined with some of the richest and most fertile agricultural land in North America. It is from here that we pump water away from the Sacramento River down into the Central Valley and south to LA. Much of California's agricultural and municipal water comes from the Delta.

We have diverted water from the Delta for much of the last century. If we draw off too much water, however, we reduce the flow of freshwater out to the ocean which can cause saltwater intrusion. Too great an intrusion could permanently affect soil fertility, as well as hurting the quality of both agricultural and drinking water.

It is therefore a balance, as we draw on water from the Delta, to provide as much water as possible to CA's thirsty inhabitants (especially at times of drought) while at the same time ensuring that we don't overdraw and destroy the delicate Delta ecosystem. It provides the state with a critical resource - fresh water - and we need to be careful in our management of it, lest we destroy the health of that resource for future generations. A saline intrusion far up the river could leave the Delta's banks infertile, destroying the agricultural and ecological communities along them, thus reducing the river's ability to regulate flooding and water quality. The river is a living ecosystem, and the function it provides for us relies on its components being intact.

To this end, the protection of the controversial Delta smelt (a tiny fish species listed as Endangered) is important because it is considered an indicator for water quality in the Delta, a "canary in the coal mine" that alerts us if the Delta's waters are becoming too low-quality or too saline. So as long as the Delta smelt are present, water quality is good enough for agricultural and city use. THIS IS WHY WE ARE UPHOLDING THE ENDANGERED SPECIES PROTECTION ACT IN CALIFORNIA. It is for the long-term preservation of a fragile yet much-modified ecosystem that provides much of California with its water. Suspending the act and sacrificing the Delta smelt will only result in the loss of the Delta, and a future with even less water security than we have now.

Seriously, Nunes. This issue is just like DUH. Just because you won't have to worry about votes in the next generation when you're dead doesn't mean you shouldn't give a half of a rat's ass about their rights to our ecosystem and water, too.

What a plum. Seriously. I bet he's filling up his swimming pool right now.


In more or less the same vein (but slightly less polarized, hopefully?), I wrote a piece outlining the various pressures and players in the California drought at Hawkmoth Magazine in our spring issue: check it out here.

10 June 2015

The Enchanted Isles: a Geological and Evolutionary History

A final series of Ecuador posts (by now very, very belated). The theme? Tourism and sustainability in a fragile island ecosystem. The place? The Galápagos Archipelago.

Well-known for one very specific, very clever fellow who visited in 1835 and observed some birds (as well as loads of other plant & animal species), and made some astute observations about evolution and speciation, the Galápagos are often thought of quite simply as Darwin's natural laboratory.

But they are so much more than that. They are not just a "natural laboratory" populated by dramatically (and elegantly!) speciated animals and plants; they are home to a human population as well, with centuries of human history that have been linked with the introduction of plants for agriculture and invasive species for food and as pets; and they are the annual destination for more than 200,000 tourists, bringing with them pressures for demands that far exceed the resources available on the islands - not to mention far more invasive species, on a totally unprecedented scale.

We landed bumpily on this inauspicious assemblage of rocky volcanic islands, 1000 km (620 mi) to the west of the Ecuador coastline in the Pacific Ocean, and spent 10 days taking classes, exploring the beautiful shores and venturing up into the inland ecosystems of this archipelago. We viewed it through the lens of applied ecologists: how can one possibly begin to reconcile conservation aims with the rights of inhabitants, when it is international rather than local interests driving the conservation movement there? And how can this be balanced against the increasing pressures exerted by tourism?

We'll explore the issue in three parts: background of the islands, human presence and invasive species, and tourism.

I. Geological and Evolutionary History of the Galápagos

To appreciate the importance of the Galápagos Archipelago on the conservation and tourism scene, it is important to delve quickly into its geological and evolutionary history. The islands are formed by a volcanic hotspot situated under the Nazca tectonic plate, which moves eastward a few centimeters per year. Magma emerging from the hotspot creates the islands, which are carried eastward towards the South American mainland with the movement of the Nazca plate.

The newest islands are volcanically active, and sit directly above the hotspot; as the islands are carried away from the hotspot, their volcanoes become inactive, and erosion carves away at them until the islands disappear into the ocean. So the Galápagos islands are created through vulcanism and destroyed through erosion, and this process has been going on for the past 60+ million years.

Scientists estimate that species began to arrive on the islands (which, allow me to reiterate, are about 1000 km - 620 mi from the the nearest coastline) as early as 20 million years ago. Birds arrived by flying, either deliberately or by being caught in unexpected storms. Plants arrived as seeds that floated or were borne by wind; some may have been caught on the foot/feather/beak of a bird, or were deposited in their guano. Reptiles, amphibians and mammals likely arrived floating on "rafts" of plant material. Insects were either wind-borne or arrived via the feathers and fur of other animals.

After the difficult first step of just arriving to these distant islands, species had to establish - that is, they had to be able to find enough water and food on the inhospitable archipelago (which has very limited freshwater resources). Otherwise they would die out immediately. Species that were able to adapt to extreme condition, therefore, were selected for. And species that were able to spread out and move to the different islands were also more successful, because - remember - the older islands were disappearing into the sea.

And this is the most exciting part of the geological and evolutionary tale of the Galápagos: although some of its native species have been present on the Archipelago for as long as 20 million years, the oldest of the current islands have only existed for 3.5 million years. In other words, the original islands that the first species arrived on have long since eroded and disappeared, likely taking some species with them. The species that survive now were the ones that radiated outwards amongst the islands and adapted to the new conditions on each islands. Speciation, or the process of developing specialized traits (such as the different beaks of Darwin's famous finches), was avidly selected for in the Galápagos.

For that reason, the Galápagos are something of a gem from a scientific perspective: here is this impossible world, populated by species that crossed a vast expanse of water and then underwent multiple speciation events in an extreme environment characterized by harsh conditions and limited resources. The ecosystems of the Galápagos, therefore, are incredibly special. And from a scientific and conservation perspective, they must be protected for this reason.

But what have been the challenges to that goal? Coming in the next instalments...

II. Human Arrival and Introduction of Invasive Species

III. Tourism and the Demand for more More MORE